When Jelena Dokic arrived in Melbourne Park in January of 2009, all she had left was her story.
More than a decade removed from her professional debut, Dokic had been languishing around in proverbial limbo since dropping out of the top 100 in 2004. She fell off the WTA rankings following a 2007 season where she played just one match, a 6-2, 6-4 first-round loss to Giulia Gatto-Monticone in an ITF $10,000 event in Rome, and earned $98. After cutting off all ties with her controversial father, Damir, and pleading Tennis Australia for help, Dokic recommitted herself and made a full-time return to competitive tennis in 2008. She won three titles on the ITF Circuit (including a 25K in Germany where she defeated Michelle Gerards 6-0, 6-0 in the final), and decided she was ready to test the waters at Grand Slam level once again.
She emerged from the round robin stage of the Australian Open wildcard playoffs with a 2-1 record and defeated Monika Wejnert in the final match to earn a spot in the main draw of the 2009 Australian Open.
Ranked No. 187, Dokic’s 2009 Australian Open campaign began on Hisense Arena against Tamira Paszek. Paszek was fighting her own demons, as just one year earlier, she participated in possibly one of the most dramatic matches in the history of the tournament on that very same court. In a battle of two-handed backhands, it was Dokic who prevailed over an opponent ranked 107 places higher than her in three sets, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4.
It was Dokic’s first win in a Grand Slam since 2003 and at the event itself in 10 years. To put it in context, Dokic was 15 when she had last won a match at the Australian Open. She had not yet defected back to her family’s native Yugoslavia, nor had yet she returned to her adopted homeland proclaiming herself truly Australian. Despite her rocky relationship history with her adopted homeland, as the match against Paszek went on, the Australians began to pull their support behind Dokic more and more.
Dokic returned to Rod Laver Arena for the first time in eight years two nights later, when she faced off against No. 17 (and equally tragic tennis heroine) Anna Chakvetadze. In her player’s box sat only her boyfriend Tim Bikic and his brother and her new coach, Borna Bikic. That didn’t seem to matter for Dokic, because for the first time, she also had nearly 15,000 strong in her corner as well.
After serving for the match at 6-4 5-3, Dokic proceeded to lose the second set in a tiebreak before rebounding to take the match 6-4, 6-7, 6-3. An emotional Dokic broke down in her post-match interview, recognizing just how much the crowd support meant to her.
To quote Maria Sharapova, Rod Laver Arena became Dokic’s home for the rest of the tournament as she battled her way through two more three-setters against No. 11 Caroline Wozniacki and No. 29 Alisa Kleybanova (two-part highlights here and here) to reach the quarterfinals of a major for the first time since Roland Garros in 2002, when she played for Yugoslavia. It was her first final eight showing as an Australian since Wimbledon in 2000. Far from her peak fitness, Dokic consistently remarked how much the crowd played a part in pulling her through.
After rolling her ankle late in the third set against Kleybanova, Dokic’s fairytale run came to an end at the hands of Dinara Safina in the quarterfinals, 6-4 4-6 6-4.
In the five years since her magical showing Down Under, Dokic’s still been riding the roller coaster that’s defined her career. After finishing 2009 at No. 57, her highest ranking since 2003, she shot down the rankings just as quickly in 2010. She returned to the top 100 in 2011, won her first WTA title in nearly nine years in Kuala Lumpur and also reached the final in ‘s-Hertogenbosch before losing to Roberta Vinci. However, it was in 2011 that things began to unravel for Dokic. She struggled that season with mononucleosis, a hamstring injury and a right shoulder injury. It was a wrist injury that proved to be her undoing in 2012, one that required surgery.
Now unranked once again, Dokic will play her first competitive tennis match in 18 months today, again at the annual Australian Open wildcard playoff hosted by Tennis Australia. Her opponent in the first round? Jarmila Gajdosova, who’s looking to script a comeback of her own after being sidelined with mononucleosis herself for much of 2013.
“I think it’s always the same – the love for the game,” Dokic told The Australian. “I don’t think that ever changes…I don’t really care as much whether I win, whether I lose and how I play, I just want to be out there and have that feeling again of competing and being nervous and adrenaline and everything.”
Although all of Australia might not be watching when Dokic takes the court Tuesday in the shadow of Rod Laver Arena, whatever happens next is just another chapter in her story.